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Henderson: 'You Don't Flip A Switch And Success Happens'

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D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson says that gains in the city's school system will take years to take root.
(AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson says that gains in the city's school system will take years to take root.

On Tuesday Mayor Vince Gray and D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson announced to great fanfare that student proficiency rates in math and reading in 2013 had shown bigger gains since school reform efforts kicked off on 2007. While the news seemed shore up Gray and Henderson's ongoing—and oft-controversial—reform plans, the city's public school system still faces challenges.

After the announcement, WAMU 88.5's education reporter Kavitha Cardoza sat down with Henderson to pick her brain on what has gone well, what is left to be done and what it will take to complete it. And unlike in 2007, Henderson is cautioning that continued patience will be needed to see sustainable improvements in the city's public schools.

What do you think led to these strong gains in math and reading?

We have invested heavily in getting, growing and keeping the best people. We're starting to see the results. A standardized curriculum; zillions of dollars worth of books, classroom materials, new facilities; combined with the support that we've gotten from partner agencies across the city, I think those are the reasons we're seeing those kind of results.

You don't flip a switch and success happens. It takes time to put the right pieces in place and then to allow them to bear fruit.

The averages can sometimes mask the individual schools. Just to pick some high schools, Cardozo saw a six percent drop in reading, Dunbar a 10 percent drop, McKinley a nine percent drop. So some of our schools are going backwards.

I think every year you're going to have some bumps and bruises. For example, at Cardozo Ms. Roane was a first-year principal. She had a lot of work to do to begin to rebuild the culture at Cardozo. I am completely confident that you're going to see gains at Cardozo in the coming years, and again, I think it underscores the point that you don't flip a switch and success happens. It takes time to put the right pieces in place and then to allow them to bear fruit.

When education reform began in 2007, the catch-phrase then was, "Do everything like your hair is on fire." And so it's almost amusing to me to hear people talk about having patience now.

Organizationally, we had to come in and make some huge shifts. But then you get into a phase of institution-building. If DCPS is going to be a long-standing and successful institution, people's hair can't be on fire every day. We have to get systems and structures in place where the artists that are in our classrooms get to do what they do every day under the best conditions.

When we talk about huge jumps in test scores, people are going to be thinking, 'Well, what about cheating?'

I can't say that nobody in the world won't cheat, but I think that with the testing precautions that we've put in place we've made it incredibly difficult. Over the fall OSSE [Office of the State Superintendent of Education] will go through and investigate; it will be swift and decisive with anybody who has cheated. But I think that paying attention to the cheaters actually cheats the people who every single day are doing an amazing job. Don't read about us in the papers—come walk the hallways of D.C. public schools with me and I will show you people who don't cheat and kids who are responding to that and delivering.

Last year you had a five-year plan for the District, so at the end of the 2017 school year students would be at 70 percent proficiency. We are not on track to reach that goal. How are you going to accelerate the pace of change?

Four percent of change won't get us there. We're only 22 points away from our reading goals and 20.5 points away from our math goals and we've got four years to do it. I think that if we continue to invest in our educators and figure out new ways to motivate our young people, and if we help our families understand how to help their students achieve, those are the ways that we accelerate the pace. I am more confident than ever about our ability to reach these goals over the next four years.

Henderson will appear on The Kojo Nnamdi Show on Wednesday at noon.

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